Smile When You Say That: Randolph Scott in BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE (Columbia 1958)

The usually stoic Randolph Scott gets to show a sense of humor in BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE, his fourth collaboration with director Budd Boetticher. The humor comes from Burt Kennedy’s script, who did an uncredited rewrite of Charles Lang’s original, foreshadowing his own, later comic Westerns. The result is a good (not great) little film that’s not up to other Scott/Boetticher teamings , but still a gun notch above average.

This one finds Scott as the title character, crossing the border from Mexico to the unfriendly Agry Town, where it seems everyone’s an Agry, and they don’t cotton to strangers. Buchanan just wants to make a pit stop on his way back to West Texas, get himself a nice steak, a bottle of whiskey, and a good night’s sleep. But he runs into trouble at the saloon with young Roy Agry, who is gunned down by Juan de la Vega. Apparently, Roy raped Juan’s sister over the border, and when Buchanan tries to defend Juan from a beating, both men are hauled off to Sheriff Lew Agry’s jail, then taken to be hung!

Judge Simon Agry (see, I told you they’re all Agrys!), father of Roy and brother of Lew and hotel proprietor Amos, comes along with his hired gun Abe Carbo (a non-Agry!) and stops the lynching, giving a speech about serving justice properly. The trial results in Buchanan getting off, but Juan guilty of murder. Simon’s got ulterior motives, though… Juan’s padre is rich Don Pedro de la Vega, and the judge thinks the Don will pay big bucks for his son’s release. Buchanan is ordered to get out of Dodge (er, Agry) by Lew, with two “escorts” to make sure he doesn’t come back – ever! One of these is young Pecos, a West Texan himself who saves Buchanan’s life. Now Buchanan heads back to the border town, wanting his gun belt (containing two thousand dollars in gold) back, while the feuding Agry brothers scheme against each other for Don Pedro’s fifty thousand dollar ransom…

BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE is based on the novel “The Name’s Buchanan” by William Robert Cox under the name Jonas Ward. Cox was a prolific writer of pulp magazine stories (ARGOSY, BLACK MASK, DIME WESTERN) and paperbacks, who also used the pseudonyms Willard d’Arcy, Mike Frederic, Joel Reeve, Roger G. Spellman, and probably a few others we don’t know about! The character of Buchanan was created by William Ard, and after Ard’s death Cox continued the paperback series under his Ward nom de plume. Cox also wrote for episodic TV (like WAGON TRAIN, G.E. THEATER, THE VIRGINIAN, THE OUTER LIMITS, BONANZA, and ADAM-12).

The cast consists of sagebrush vets like Tol Avery (Simon), Barry Kelley (Lew), and Peter Whitney (Amos) in another of his signature slow-witted roles. Craig Stevens , the future PETER GUNN, is all black-hatted, steely-eyed menace as Carbo. Others in the cast include Bob Anderson, Joe De Santis, Terry Frost, Roy Jensen, and a young L.Q. Jones as the West Texan Pecos. One thing missing from BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE is a love interest for Scott… maybe that’s why they changed the title from “The Name’s Buchanan”! It’s a minor but definitely watchable entry in the Scott/Boetticher series, and if you’re a fan like I am, you’ll enjoy seeing Randolph Scott able to crack a smile for a change!

Hillbilly Deluxe: MURDER, HE SAYS (Paramount 1945)

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George Marshall has long been a favorite director of mine. Though he excelled in all genres (particularly Westerns), it’s his comedies that first caught my attention. Marshall guided W.C. Fields through his first for Universal, YOU CAN’T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN (with radio foils Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy), did some of Bob Hope’s best films (THE GHOST BREAKERS, MONSIER BEAUCAIRE, FANCY PANTS), and directed MY FRIEND IRMA, the debut of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, later teaming with the pair for SCARED STIFF. He’s also responsible for the classic comic Western DESTRY RIDES AGAIN with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, and the remake with Audie Murphy. But his wackiest comedy is undoubtably the off-the-wall MURDER, HE SAYS.

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This black comedy gem stars the underrated Fred MacMurray as Pete Marshall, pollster for the Trotter company (“Like the Gallup Poll, but not as fast”), sent to tiny rural Potowanamie to find missing coworker Hector P. Smedley. He rides his bicycle to the home of the Fleagle family, a murderous gang of hillbilly outlaws led by the whip-cracking Maw Fleagle Smithers Johnson. Falling into a hole, he’s taken to the dilapidated old house, meeting Maw’s homicidal twin dimwits Mert and Bert, Maw’s latest husband Mr.  Johnson, and crazy daughter Elany. Gun-toting Grandmaw Fleagle is dying (the brood has poisoned her, causing her to glow in the dark!), and she’s harboring a secret- bank robber son Ollie Fleagle stashed $70 Grand somewhere, and the only clue is a nonsense song that only his daughter Bonnie will recognize.

Grandmaw kicks off, leaving the lyrics to the tune on a sampler she gives to Pete. Then brazen Bonnie shows up, having escaped from prison, clutching a cigar in her teeth and gun in her hand. Only it’s not Bonnie, it’s Claire Matthews, whose father was falsely imprisoned in the robbery and wants to find the loot to clear him. The Fleagle brood attempt to kill Bonnie/Claire with poisoned gravy on her grits, winding up with Mr. Johnson’s untimely demise instead. Soon the REAL Bonnie shows up and the game’s afoot…

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This premise sets up a heapin’ helping of slapstick gags and goofiness, with MacMurray showing off his comic skills to good advantage. He mugs, double-takes, pratfalls, and tosses off one-liners with the best of them (there’s even a quick quip referencing his noted saxophone playing!). The scene where he tricks the doltish twins by pretending to converse with the ghost of Hector Smedley is a comic highlight, as is the riotous ending in the hay barn. If you’re only familiar with Fred MacMurray for his dramatic roles, gentle Disney comedies, or the long-running MY THREE SONS, watch him put his clowning hat on, he’s a delight!

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Equally delightful is Marjorie Main as Maw, a warm-up for her Ma Kettle role, only this hillbilly matriarch is deadlier than a rattlesnake. Whether killing a fly on the wall with her whip or slyly commenting on her home décor (cattle skulls, quipping to MacMurray, “Pretty, ain’t they?”), Main broadly plays this grotesque caricature of motherhood to the hilt. Peter Whitney  in a dual role as twins Mert and Bert made a living off playing no-account white trash types. Helen Walker (NIGHTMARE ALLEY ) acts tough impersonating killer Bonnie, vulnerable as Claire, and is more than a match for MacMurray. That perennial slimeball Porter Hall shines as Mr. Johnson, Jean Heather (who costarred with MacMurray in DOUBLE INDEMNITY) is loony Elany, and Barbara Pepper (who’d later play Arnold’s “mom” Mrs. Ziffel on GREEN ACRES) is the real escaped con Bonnie.

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MURDER, HE SAYS benefits from Marshall’s fast-paced direction, it’s 91 minutes flying by faster than the train to Potowanamie. It’s full of physical schtick, in-jokes, and demented black comedy that classic film lover’s will eat up like Maw’s grits… just make sure you pass on the gravy!

 

Big Entertainment: Fritz Lang’s THE BIG HEAT (Columbia, 1953)

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Fritz Lang is one of the most influential film directors of all time. Getting his start in Germany’s famed Ufa Studios, Lang became world renown for masterpieces like  METROPOLIS (1927) and M (starring Peter Lorre, 1931), and his Dr. Mabuse series. Lang fled the Nazi regime in the early 30s, coming to America to ply his trade. He became a top Hollywood director particularly famous for film noir classics like SCARLET STREET (1945, a personal favorite of mine), THE BLUE GARDENIA (1953), and WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1954). One of the best of these is 1953’s  THE BIG HEAT.

The movie starts with the suicide of Tom Duncan, head of the police records bureau. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is called in and interviews the widow. Bannion’s a family man with loving wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) and young daughter. While at home enjoying some quality time, he receives a call from a woman named Lucy claiming Duncan didn’t kill himself. He meets her at local watering hole The Retreat, where she tells him Duncan and her were lovers, and he planned on divorcing his wife. Bannion doesn’t believe the B-girls tale until she’s found tortured and strangled the next day.

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Bannion decides to investigate, but is warned to stay off the case by his boss, Lt. Wilkes. He presses further anyways, going back to The Retreat and speaking with an uncooperative barkeep. A threatening call to his wife sends Bannion to drop in on Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), an old-school gangster who runs the rackets, not to mention most of the city’s politicians. Bannion’s called on the carpet again by Wilkes. Frustrated, Bannion and his wife decide to have a night out at the movies. While he tucks in his daughter, Katie goes to warm up the family car. An explosion rocks the house, as the auto has been rigged with dynamite, killing Katie and shattering Bannion’s idyllic world.

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Lt. Wilkes and the police commissioner assure Bannion justice will be served, but Bannion’s not buying it. He turns in his badge and seeks solo vengeance. Leaving his daughter with best friend Hal, Bannion goes on a personal crusade to find Katie’s killer and rid the city of Lagana’s influence. He tangles with Lagana’s top torpedo Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), who has a penchant for burning women. Stone’s girlfriend Debby (Gloria Grahame), a bubbleheaded lush, makes a play for Bannion after Stone ditches her at the bar, but is rejected. When Stone finds out, the maniac scalds her with a hot pot of coffee, scarring her for life. The movie then kicks into high gear as new alliances are formed, secrets are revealed, and Bannion finally gets the closure he’s been looking for in a violent climax.

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Glenn Ford is perfect for the part of Dave Bannion, a stand-up guy if there ever was one. Bannion’s singleness of purpose drives THE BIG HEAT, as Ford’s warm scenes with his family are juxtaposed with the brutality of the rest of the movie. Oscar winner Gloria Grahame (1952’s THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL) gives another of her fine performances as Debby. Vince Stone was a breakthrough role for Lee Marvin, and the coffee throwing scene is jolting. Other notables in the cast are Willis Boucher, Jeanette Nolan, Peter Whitney, and Adam Williams. Look quickly and you’ll find Carolyn Jones, Dan Seymore, John Doucette, and Sidney Clute in smaller roles.

Behind the scenes, Charles Lang (no relation to Fritz) worked his magic as director of photography. One of Hollywood’s premier cinematographers, Lang was nominated for 17 Oscars, winning in 1934 for A FAREWELL TO ARMS. His work can be found in such diverse films as DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY (1934), THE GHOST & MRS. MUIR (1947), SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), BLUE HAWAII (1961), WAIT UNTIL DARK (1967), and THE LOVE MACHINE (1971). He was given a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1991. Screenwriter Sydney Boehm has quite an impressive resume, too, responsible for such fare as UNION STATION (1950), WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951), BOTTOM OF THE BOTTLE (1956), and SHOCK TREATMENT (1964). Everyone contributes to the success of THE BIG HEAT, and if noir’s your thing, it’s a must-see. Even if you’re not a noir fan, you’ll enjoy the performances of Ford and company, and the talent behind the lens. THE BIG HEAT is big entertainment.